“These are sensitive, emotional environments [but] prime ministers are flesh and blood too in how they engage with these people.”
Mr Morrison has faced criticism for taking a family holiday in Hawaii at the start of the bushfire crisis, for some interactions with people in the NSW town of Cobargo, where he turned his back on one woman asking questions and shook the hand of a firefighter who did not appear to want to meet him. He said again he would have not taken the overseas holiday “knowing what I know now”.
Mr Morrison emphasised the scale of his government’s response including the defence deployment and a $2 billion recovery fund. In line with his arguments on climate change since becoming Prime Minister in August 2018, Mr Morrison said the government would “meet and beat” its Paris target of reducing emissions by 26-28 per cent compared with 2005 levels by 2030.
Mr Morrison added there was “no dispute” that climate change was causing “longer, hotter, drier, summer seasons”. But he did not commit to a bigger near-term target and his office later confirmed there were no plans to increase the target.
Mr Morrison talked up his intention to act on climate change and support new renewable technologies while ruling out a “tax” on carbon or the full restoration of the National Energy Guarantee.
“In the years ahead we are going to continue to evolve our policy in this area to reduce emissions even further,” he said. “We want to reduce emissions and do the best job we possibly can and get better and better and better at it. I want to do that with a balanced policy which recognises Australia’s broader national economic interests and social interest.”
“In the years ahead we are going to continue to evolve our policy in this area to reduce emissions even further and we’re going to do it without a carbon tax, without putting up electricity prices, and without shutting down traditional industries upon which regional Australians depend for their very livelihood.”
Australia is expected to come under global pressure at the annual United Nations summits on climate change to go beyond the 2030 target, with talks likely to focus on a “ratchet” mechanism to set bigger ambitions for 2035 or beyond.
Mr Morrison has come under criticism from political opponents, climate change experts and sometimes global celebrities during the bushfire crisis for not doing enough on climate change, while appearing reluctant to talk about the issue.
Climate scientist Andy Pitman from the Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, a research group backed by five Australian universities, agreed with Mr Morrison that Australia’s carbon emissions were a small part of the global total but said the government should still do more.
“It’s all about Australia showing the way – by doing its part in an open and strong manner – to help win the case for lower global emissions,” Professor Pitman said. “If Australia led, it would help other countries to make the case not only to meet their current commitments to reduce emissions but also the significantly deeper cuts that will be needed to achieve the [Paris] goals of limiting warming to 1.5-2 degrees.”
Australian Conservation Foundation climate change campaigner Suzanne Harter said the government would face pressure at the next United Nations summit on climate, in Glasgow in November this year, to go beyond the 2030 target.
“What I saw was the Prime Minister avoiding the issue of emission reductions by focusing on adaptation and resilience,” she said.
Mr Morrison stood by the government’s plan to rely on “carry-over credits” from surpassing previous climate change commitments in order to meet the 2030 target, an approach that is the subject of significant dispute. He did raise the scenario, however, where the government was “in the position where we don’t need them” because technology and other factors could help achieve the target without the carry-over credits.
Mr Morrison indicated a national royal commission into the fires could exist alongside any operational review by the states and spoke of the need for new federal laws to give the commonwealth the power to call a national emergency and deploy a military response.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the royal commission should consider climate change and the government’s own actions.
“We want scrutiny of the government’s performance, and the inadequacies, and the need to act now,” he said.
“At the moment what they have is an accounting policy of having accounting tricks, rather than actually reducing emissions. We don’t have a domestic plan. And we don’t have a plan which would then give us credibility internationally to argue the sort of reforms that are needed.”
‘We’re going to do it without a carbon tax’
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.